The Theater

View of the cavea and orchestra

The Theater

Aerial photo of the Theater before the works

The Roman theater οf Nicopolis was in the southern foothills of the sacred hill of Apollo, a short distance northeast of the Stadium. Oddly enough, the Theater is not mentioned by Octavian’s contemporary Strabo, although he does refer to the Stadium and the Gymnasium. Excavation has demonstrated that the Theater belonged to the building program of Augustus. The renovation of the monument dates to the first half of the 2nd century AD and was probably done by Hadrian.

The Roman architect Vitruvius (death 15 B.C.) in his handbook of architecture De Architectura, describes the morphological characteristics of the “ideal” theater in the Roman manner and the characteristics of Greek theaters in comparison to Roman ones.

The auditorium (koilon) of the Greek theater always rested directly on natural slopes following corresponding removal of earth and adjustments to the ground level. In Roman theaters the innovation of supporting the auditorium (cavea) on vaulted substructures founded on level ground appeared. This technical solution facilitated the choice of location foe erecting theaters in urban centers, since it was no longer necessary to search out natural slopes.

The tripartite arrangement of Greek theater -stage, orchestra, koilon- became united in a single building in the Roman theater. This consolidation resulted in the creation of a semicircular orchestra which did not form part of the scenic action, as the actors performed on the proscenium (pulpitum).

Moreover, in the Roman theater there were vaulted passages (aditus maximi) leading to the orchestra-which correspond to the parodoi of the Greek theater- while other vaulted passageways (vomitoria) were used for entering or exiting the auditorium. Between the orchestra and the proscenium there was a channel for the mechanism of the stage curtain (aulaeum). The aulaeum fell into the channel when the performance began and was raised when it finished. For this reason, the expression “aulea premutur” i.e. the curtain is lowered, signified the beginning of the performance.

The Parts of a Roman Theater

Excavation has demonstrated that the Theater belonged to the building program of Augustus. The renovation of the monument dates to the first half of the 2nd century AD and was probably done by Hadrian.

From the early 1950s,  conservation and consolidation work has been carried out on various monuments, including the Theater, by the Archaeological Service. During the 1970’s and 1980’s consolidation and restoration of various parts of the theater were conducted due to serious risk of collapse.

In 1984, the First International Symposium on Nicopolis took place in Preveza, where in accordance with proposals made, the Scientific Committee of Nicopolis was formed in 1987. The Committee launched scientific excavations, rescue work on the antiquities, and the gradual configuration of the site into an archaeological park.  Two Honorary Ephors of Antiquities served as Presidents of the Scientific Committee; Dr Konstantinos Zachos (1987-2014) and Dr Eugenia Chalkia (2014-2015).

During the 1990s trial trenches were opened at various points in the monument to gather data for launching topographic work. During this work, the retaining wall south of the stage building known from Donaldson’s drawings was identified. In the early 2000’s an iron framework was constructed to buttress the perimeter wall of the auditorium, followed by consolidation work on the stage building.

The seriously-endangered state of the monument and the need to immediately deal with the risk of the collapse and erosion, led to an action plan to avert its further deterioration. Consequently, a study was prepared and the Theater was included in an NSRF program in two phases. During the program, excavation research took place that brought to light new data for the monument as well as various finds (inscriptions, sculpture and architectural parts etc.) that help the better understanding of the Theater. The project also involved extended conservation and restoration works, studies and preliminary reports for every phase of the works.

Map of the city. Thomas Leverton Donaldson, 1835

The Theater’s orientation does not follow that of the streets and most of the buildings of Nicopolis. This choice was apparently dictated by the need to adapt to the terrain, since the theater was not built on level ground. While it has suffered major damage due to factors (even in the recent past, when during the Greek-Italian war the cavea was used by the Italians as anti-aircraft machine gun emplacement), it remains one of the archaeological site’s most imposing monuments due to its prominent position and the fact that it remains preserved to a considerable height.

The Theater of Nicopolis embodies all those elements that make it a Roman-type theater: a surrounding retaining wall, the retaining walls flanking the stage building, the stage building itself, the upper auditorium (cavea) with the remaining parts of its substructure, the three vaulted entrances in the upper cavea, part of the proscenium (pulpitum) and orchestra, and the west parodos and lower cavea (ima cavea) with its stone seating. At least two building phases are recognizable on the basis of the position and construction method of architectural elements. The perimeter wall, retaining walls, aditus maximi and part of the auditorium and stage building belong to the first phase (late 1st c. BC/early 1st c. AD). During the second phase, parts of the auditorium and stage building underwent extensive alterations and additions.

The perimeter wall, retaining walls, and stoa: The lower cavea rested on the natural slope of the hill, while the upper cavea rested on a stone substructure, in accordance with the support system for the cavea in Roman theaters. The perimeter semicircular wall which supports the upper cavea, was reinforced at intervals by buttresses. In the upper part of the wall, vertical pairs of stones project at intervals to support the wooden poles to which the awning which shaded spectators was tied. The stones of the upper row have a circular through-and-through opening, and those of the lower row have a circular depression. Three symmetrically-disposed entrances (vomitoria) in the perimeter wall –a central and two side ones- concluded at the original praecinctio (a 2.5m. wide corridor) that divided the auditorium into zones. Audience access to the two end vomitoria was by means of staircases.

On the upper part of the cavea there was a surrounding stoa (porticus in summa cavea). Three entrances gave access to the audience; the central one is situated above the central vomitorium.

The retaining walls on the façade of the theater, on either side of the stage building, were built using large stone blocks that came from older buildings in the region and frequently had sockets of clamps or other elements from their first use. Two vaulted parodoi (aditus maximi) on either side of the stage building led to the orchestra. Above the west parodos three levels of box seats (tribunalium) were uncovered. Evidence for corresponding box seats was found in the ruins of the east parodos.

The auditorium (cavea): The auditorium is divided in two zones: the upper auditorium (summa cavea) and the lower auditorium (ima cavea). The stone seats of the upper caeva rested on the substructure, which was composed of three successive vaulted passageways. In the upper cavea, with a very few exceptions the seats had been looted in the past. Some of them have inscriptions with the name of the person who “owned” the seat. A significant number of seats in the lower cavea, which were built on natural bedrock, are preserved in situ.

The orchestra: The orchestra was semicircular (diam. 22m.) with its floor paved in rectangular stone and marble slabs. The center of alignment of the semicircle was in the center of the imaginary diameter defined by the retaining walls.

The stage building (scaenea): The stage building of the first construction phase was demolished and replaced with a newer one which preserved the original design of the building. The newer structure (44x6m.), which is preserved at some points to a height 9 meters above today’s ground level, was entirely built of brick in the opus testaceum construction system.

The façade (scaenae frons) was straight; on its ground floor it had three arched entrances, of which the central one (valva regia) was formed within a niche, while the other two (valvae hospitaliae) are smaller.

The stage building’s two walls, its inner one (façade or scaenae frons) and its outer one, were 2.70 meters apart from each other, thus creating a long and narrow intervening space, the postscaenium. The covering of the postscaenium, at least up to the height of the first floor, was vaulted and consisted of seven transverse vaults supported on six transverse walls, with an opening in each to pass from space to space. The scaenae fons (length 37m.) was decorated with a two-story projecting porch consisting of a colonnade and a straight entablature.

The proscenium (pulpitum) extended along the length of the scaenae frons. The action in theatrical performances took place on it, in contrast with the Greek theater were the actors performed on the orchestra. On its façade, the proscenium had alternating semicircular and rectangular niches faced in marble. Behind these niches was the “curtain channel”.

The proscenium was framed by the versurae (backstages), two rectangular, multi-story buildings with wide doors to the proscenium.

From the building of the first construction phase there remain preserved some sections of the wall of the stage building’s façade, incorporated into more recent walls, as well as these walls’ foundations wherever they were deemed adequate. The fragmentary building materials from the demolition of the building dating to the first phase were used as aggregate in the concrete foundations of the new construction.

The Actian Games in honor of Apollo were held in the sanctuary of Apollo Actius, which was under the jurisdiction of Anaktorion (Anactorium), a Corinthian colony on the Ambracian Gulf (Strabo 7.7.6). Augustus reorganized the Acarnanians’ local games and made them more brilliant, on the one hand to perpetuate his epochal victory and on the other to honor the god Apollo, to whose assistance the victorious outcome of the naval battle was attributed.

The new Actian Games are referred to in the sources as Άκτια, Άκτια εν Νικοπόλει, Άκτια μεγάλα Καισάρεια, and τα Αυγούστου Άκτια (Aktia, Aktia en Niopolei, Aktia megala Kaisareia, and ta Avgoustou Aktia). Our evidence indicates that the first new Actian Games must have been held in September 27 BC. The games soon became renowned, as may be inferred from the large number of agonistic inscriptions that have survived in the Roman world, on which are recorded the games, the (specific) event, and the name of the victor. According to the inscriptions, the Actian Games were held continuously, except perhaps for an interruption in the age of Caligula, until the 3rd century AD. When Christianity became predominant, the Actian Games followed the fortunes of other athletic games in antiquity.

The contests

The new Actian Games were held every four years, and included athletic contests (games), contests of artistic skill, and horse races. It is certain that during the Imperial age the Actian Games were added to the cycle (periodos) of Panhellenic games as a fifth event. Sacred games like the Aktia had as their prize a wreath (στεφανίτες αγώνες). The illustrations show various types of wreaths, the commonest being a type of reed, followed by laurel wreaths, and then most likely by ivy wreaths.

Three categories of athletes took part in the Actian Games as concerns age: boys (13-16 years old), “beardless youths” (i.e. adolescents) (17-20), and men (21+). The athletic contests included light and heavy competitions. Of the former, the Actian Games included the stadion (short distance, i.e. one stade), the diavlos (middle distance), the dolichos (long distance), and the oplites dromos (race in armor). Of the heavy sports, there is mention of wrestling, boxing, and the pankration, in which all three age groups took part. However, only men and adolescents competed in the pentathlon, which in addition to its light sports (long-jump, running, javelin-throwing) also included discus-throwing and wrestling. As for horse races, though these are mentioned in the literary sources there is no corresponding testimony in the agonistic inscriptions. The Actian Games presented an impressive variety in terms of artistic events. The lists of Actian victors mention poets, sophists, tragedians, comedians, heralds, trumpeters (salpinktes), lyre-players, voice teachers (phonaskoi) (teachers of singing and recitation), flute-players, and pantomimists.

The site and administration of the Actian Games

As the site for holding the new Actian Games, the slope of the hill where Octavian had set up his headquarters on the eve of battle was chosen. The choice of location was chiefly determined by reasons of political expediency aimed at promoting the region as a sacred site, and was in full agreement with the narrative of the regime, which viewed Octavian’s victory as the will of the gods.

Octavian entrusted the oversight of the Actian Games to the Spatans, because they were the only Greeks who had sided with him under Eurycles, hegemon of Sparta and a close friend of Octavian who took part in the battle of Actium with his own ships. Later, the administration of the games passed to the Nicopolitans themselves, because the sources mention the Sacred Actian Council (Ιερά Ακτιακή Βουλή) which, like the corresponding Council of Olympia, was responsible for the religious rituals and overall organization of the games.

Following the abandonment of Nicopolis and the gradual accumulation of its ruins, the archaeological site became a boundless reserve for building material. A significant quantity of building material from the monuments of Nicopolis, including column capitals, epistyles, coffers, bricks from the Roman wall and others, has been found on monuments in Arta and its environs from the era of the Despotate of Epirus. The plundering of building material continued during the period of Venetian and Ottoman rule through the modern periods.

As Byzantium was dying, the spirit of the Renaissance arose in Europe with Florence at its center. Nostalgia for Classical antiquity and interest on the part of humanists in visiting Greece prevailed in the Renaissance.

Antiquarian investigation of the ancient city was inaugurated with the visit of Cyriacus of Ancona to Nicopolis in 1435 and 1436. Ciriaco de’ Pizzicolli, who is considered the forerunner of traveling of this antiquarian type, starting from Arta, made excursions to various areas, including Nicopolis, which he characterized as “a major city in Epirus”. Impressed by the many buildings built of brick with marble decoration, he identified it as Dodona.

In the late 18th century and initial decades of the 19th, the number of travelers in Epirus increased dramatically. The French General Consul at the court of Ali Pasha, François Pouqueville noted: “… all the travelers who disembarked on the coast of Epirus visited, drew, and described Nicopolis”. There is a long list of travelers who visited Nicopolis and several engraved their names on the walls of the theater.

The visits by the English colonel William Martin Leake to Nicopolis in 1804 and considerably later, in 1809, were milestones in the Nicopolis of the travelers. As he noted in Travels in Northern Greece (published in 1835), the ruins of Nicopolis were called Old Preveza (Palaiopreveza), and its Early Christian walls were called (the) Palaiokastro. Among other things, on the basis of Strabo’s passages, Leake identified the site of Octavian’s camp, the location of the Gymnasium, and that of the inner harbor at Vathi (Vathy). He pointed out that the theater was one of the best-preserved of Roman theaters, and remarked on its construction system, i.e. the use of brick versus the Greek construction system, which he considered superior. He also noted that he found fragments of statues from the sculptural decoration of the façade of the stage building on which letters of the names of Aphrodite and Athens were preserved: ΑΦΡΩ, -ΘΗΝΑΙ.

In 1813 the theologician Thomas Smart Hughes visited Nicopolis, the first traveler who recognized the infrastructure for supporting the shading system. He also found the three lime kilns in the auditorium which he incorrectly identified as water reservoirs.

A few years later, in 1820, the prominent English architect Thomas Leverton Donaldson (1795-1885) visited Nicopolis, preparing its first topographic plan and drawings of important monuments such as the Theater and Odeum. Leake included Donaldson’s drawings in the publication of his travels. Donaldson’s drawing of the theater is distinguished for its reliable depiction of the ground plan of the ruins, even though it was not preceded by excavation.

The conservation and reconstruction of the Nicopolis Theater begun systematically in 2012 and it is an ongoing project to this day. On November 25, 2011 with a signed Programmatic Agreement, the Epirus Prefecture offered 100,000.00 euros to the Hellenic Ministry of Culture. This fund was used for the completion of excavation works and photographic documentation.

The project Protection, conservation and reconstruction of the Nicopolis Theater (First Phase) was funded by NSRF 2007-2013 with the sum of 1,500,180.00 euros. Through this programme a series of works were completed; stabilisation and preventive conservation of brick walls in the Proscaenium and Porticus, excavation works on summa cavea and various exploration trenches that determined the monuments’ condition, removal of huge fallen wall-parts in order to avoid danger of injury. A fence was constructed around the monument along with a walk path with information displays for visitors (including texts in Braille).

A number of technical studies were undertaken either by third parties, or by the personnel of the Preveza Ephorate of Antiquities or other organisations (DIAZOMA). These were approved by the Central Archaeological Council and helped the integration of the project in the next Business Plan.

In December 2016 the second phase of the project Protection, conservation and reconstruction of the Nicopolis Theater was approved, funded with the sum of 2,800,000.00 euros. Since the summer of 2017 when the project was initiated, various works were completed; excavation of the ima Cavea, the Orchestra and the Pulpitum, the west Versura and Aditus Maximus as well as works on the west retaining wall. The excavation also unearthed the staircase west of the Postscaenium and the channel for the stage curtain between the Pulpitum and the Orchestra. Still ongoing are preventive conservation and reconstruction works of the ima Cavea and the Porticus. A great number of artefacts are being conservated such as bronze and silver coins, marble sculptures, reliefs and architectural parts.

Today, the (already) completed part of the project allows the visitor to comprehend the form, the dimensions and the monumentality of the Theater. After the completion of the restoration project, the Nicopolis Theater will stand as an exceptional Roman architectural work, and as another step towards the realisation of the Nicopolis archaeological park.

The Nicopolis Theater as part of an archaeological park

The Nicopolis archaeological site is the most extensive Roman site in Greece, covering an area of 13,500 acres. Its monuments present aspects of the historical course of the city that were not disturbed by earlier or later settlements. The ruins that sometimes survive in a remarkable height above the ground, offer us a complete picture of a great ancient civic center.

The antiquities of Nicopolis are protected by the Hellenic and international law and since 1980 -when the Scientific Committee for Nicopolis was founded- the efforts for the protection, conservation and promotion of the monuments were intensified. The Committee organised conventions, studies and research projects that lead to a Master Plan for the creation of an extended archaeological park.

The restoration of the cultural environment wishes to promote selected monuments that could offer a better view of the ancient city. Eight groups of such monuments are created, one of which is the Suburb that includes the Stadium, the Gymnasium and the Theater.

The completion of the Master Plan will offer to the Greek and international public the greatest archaeological park of Roman period in Greece. The visitor will be able to walk on the ancient streets and see the monuments of an important ancient city, fully integrated in its natural environment.

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